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Avoiding intimidation at the ballot box

It is important to understand the singularity of these so-called “ballot security” activities. Private citizens, working with political parties or groups, take it upon themselves to enforce the law. In those states that allow direct challenges to voters, citizens not only assume the guise of law enforcement, but that of prosecutors as well.

Compare ballot security drives to other areas of law enforcement. Many believe there is an epidemic of fraud on Wall Street, just as many claim there is massive voter fraud. Yet citizens rely on state and federal governments to enforce the securities laws. They do not post themselves on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, confronting traders each time they sense something wrong. If that were the case, traders involved in legitimate activity would never get their work done.

The same is true with voting. State and local election officials, and federal and state law enforcement personnel, have the legal responsibility to ensure that voting is fair and accurate. It is their job to protect against – and prosecute, if necessary – voter fraud as well as vote suppression. Judging from the extremely low rates of voter fraud in American elections, they do this job quite well. No one argues that these officials should perform their jobs without oversight. Citizen observation and monitoring can be a beneficial safeguard. 

But the reality is that ballot security efforts are frequently disruptive to an orderly voting process. Far too often – especially in the emotionally heated environment of a hotly contested election – these efforts go awry, crossing the line into voter intimidation, discrimination, or vote suppression.  And even if they don’t result in intimidation, discrimination or suppression, ballot security operations can slow down the voting process, creating long lines and confusion, and depressing turnout. They undermine morale too, creating an atmosphere of mistrust in the very places where Americans come together to participate in the defining act of self-government.

The downsides to ballot security operations are many, and there is little upside. These operations almost never uncover any voter fraud. And for good reason: the kinds of fraud that actually do happen, albeit rarely, cannot be detected at the polls. While “Mickey Mouse” may still be able to submit a registration form, unless he has valid government records or appropriate ID, he cannot vote. In any event, the answer to inaccurate voter rolls is modernizing our voter registration system, not obstructing the vote.

Other advanced democracies do not allow citizens to police fellow voters and challenge them at the polls. Citizens can comment on the voter rolls before Election Day, so that all concerns are resolved beforehand and all citizens can vote in peace. We should show the same respect for American voters. 

Our most sacred rite of democracy should not turn into a battleground with citizens confronting and accusing one another at the polls. Those citizens who take the time to vote deserve peace and respect. The last thing voters need is to become unwitting pawns in a partisan struggle.

Wendy R. Weiser is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. She is co-author of the Center’s report, “Ballot Security and Vote Suppression.”


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